Sivaram Memorial Lecture
by Nimalka Fernando
(June 06, Zurich, Sri Lanka Guardian) Thank you for inviting me to say few words during this Sivaram memorial meeting. One of main features of the meetings organized by the Platform Freedom soon after the assassination of Lasantha campaigning for Rights to Life and Freedom of Speech in which I am a convenor is the performance of Jayathilake Bandara a well known people’s vocalist to sing songs from his collection of People’s Echo. The songa are written by him to challenge our conscience. At every meeting we held during the period 2007- 2009 all over the country a song specially dedicated to Sivaram. I would like you to listen to this song. He tells us about the singing fish of Batticaloa calling for Sivaram – He reminds about the deep voice of Taraki. Where ever we went this song haunts us – tell us about the brutal reality that Taraki is no more.
Sivaram has continued to live with us as we campaign for Right to Life and Freedom of Expression to universal principles which still remain threatened in Sri Lanka and continue to challenge the civil society activism in post war era.
Death is sad and to lose a friend makes it worse. During this life of mine I have seen the death of Rajani Thiranagama who was my colleague in the Student Christian Movement, then some time later I saw the smashed body of Neelan Thiruchelvam and near my leg the head of the suicide bomber who blew him out. Two human beings wiped out of this world. We have lived through such shocks. On that day for a moment I lost my bearings – asked myself whether is it of any value to work for peace? You still see me worthy of being invited to deliver this memorial and I am humbled by that experience. At times we try to train people for peace and also to become human rights defenders. Governments think that NGOs are creating peace activists and human rights defenders using funds. It is my personal view that we can not make HRDs or Pas. They are products of experiences and history. We can not offer money and ask some one to become and HRD it comes out of personal experiences and convictions. They are those who dare to dream dreams. Sivaram was one such person a human being who spoke out and wrote what he believes or to what he was born into.
As a peace activist as we went through the various phases of the conflict we tried to explain to our community in the Sinhala south that peace is not merely silencing the opponents but it requires the need to recognize and affirm the rights of the Tamil speaking people for self determination and rights of the Muslim and other communities to live in dignity sharing equal rights.
Today we are all gathered here as a grieving society coming from a country which became the tear drop of the Indian Ocean. We ourselves have to take the responsibility to some extent. We are also not afraid to name and shame the political leaders and their goons and brothers who has turned Sri Lanka into a battle field and a den of thieves.
One of the first casualties of the war was the truth. Journalist were not allowed to enter the war zone and Sri Lankan journalists were targeted for speaking out – the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunga in January 2009 who had predicted his own assassination a few days earlier, was the most poignant illustration of the nature of this assault. Truth about violations is not an abstract notion in Sri Lanka. Rather, it is a suppressed memory of harm done and pain and suffering caused. Acknowledgment and truth, including a frank discussion of the root causes of conflict and violations, are imperative not only for the victims of the final stages of the conflict: it is also vital for many other victims of violations committed over the last decades and for Sri Lankan society as a whole, if there is any hope of overcoming deeply entrenched collective trauma.
We have to understand and accept the need to acknowledge the shared suffering …..
Why is it important to remember ?
UNFORTUNATELY we are getting unconscious. We do not speak about July 1983 ethnic holocaust; the burning of the Jaffna public library with its irreplaceable old Tamil manuscripts and books (sometimes referred to as cultural genocide); the Indian military operation to capture Jaffna in October 1987 ; and the tsunami of December 2004.
For years we have lived with the phenomenon of 'disappearances', torture and landmines. Even in the south, when we organise meetings the issue of getting Poloice permission becomes a matter of debate. The governments have harnessed the tools of repression carefully. These weapons have been developed into a physical and psychosocial tools. To break the individual personalities, those who try to resist, as well as encompassing community into submission. Though many individuals will not survive torture, those who did are released in a broken condition; or when dead, their maimed bodies were conspicuously exhibited to act as a warning to others. With the promulgation of laws such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act and Emergency Regulations, this violence was instituionalized. These regulations facilitate prolonged incommunicado detention without charges or trial, in locations at the discretion of the Security Forces, and allowed for the disposal of bodies of victims without judicial inquiry. These laws legitimized the use of torture and death in custody . Thus torture became institutionalized as an aspect of state terror. Even the militants used such methods.
The overriding experience of Tamils has been a discriminatory system and injustice. Those responsible for what may be called war crimes and the worst types of human rights abuses have never been punished. The few cases of massacres, disappearances, torture, rape, custodial killings, mass graves that have been investigated and brought to light have not resulted in justice being done. Impunity prevails. Though perpetrators have been identified, and in some rare cases arrested and court cases instituted, none have been sentenced (the sole exemption being the highly publicized Krishanthy case which was taken up by many women's and other human rights organizations), or punished . The perpetrators are promoted (such as diplomatic posts overseas), or they are transferred elsewhere. In the case of abuse and injustices committed by the Tamil militants the victims usually had to bear it in silence.
What is Post-war, Sri Lanka we are talking about. It is a country of symbols. Country cheering , eating milk rice, crowds carrying lino-flags, covering themselves and painting cheeks during the World Cup. Huge cut outs of the President – which was taken down recently during the demonstration of the garment workers few days ago at the airport junction. The post scenario heralded in a Raja Mela and we also heard about a crown being prepared by some clowns in the Palace.
This post war scene hid from our eyes the cramped and ill equipped camp sites which literally imprisoned hundreds and thousands of Tamil who became internally displaced, thousand others detained in unkown centres beaten up and tortured, several hundreds disappearing every day from the camps, killing and beating up of media personnel.
The war is over. But defence expenditure keeps on increasing. The defence allocation for 2011 wis Rs.214 billion as compared to Rs.201 billion for 2010, an increase of Rs.13 billion. Logically, such a massive hike in the defence budget should not and need not be in a post war scenario. Yet there is increase in the defence budget and military strength to 300,000. We are not a rich country and is facing a burgeoning debt burden. I asked a Sri Lankan politicians where all these funds borrowed are going , the government is borrowing funds from local banks and also from the World Bank. The simple answer was to pay back for purchasing military equipments as well to strengthen the defence establishment.
This seems an inexplicable anomaly, until one considers that Sri Lanka is undergoing not one but two radical transformations – from a flawed democracy to not just to a familial oligarchy but also a National Security State. Post-war, Sri Lanka is experiencing a galloping militarization in the North and a firm calculated strategy of militarization of the South.
In the North, temporary military camps are being made permanent while new camps and military cantonments are being set up. At an Army Day ceremony held at the Sri Maha Bodhiya to bless the Army Flags, the Army Commander has spoken about plans to station at least one army division and one STF camp in each district. Visiting Vanii and the displaced will show us the level of militarization. Resettlement is a process of militarizing the Vanni. While the government is speaking about rapid resettlement what has actually happened or is happening is taking over of land to establish military cantonment surrounding villagers who are going back. Those who are returning has no freedom of movement and there is heavy surveillance. Those who are visiting the area require permission and at times soldiers take photographs using telephone cameras. This situation reminds me of the occupied territories of Palestine.
Women are the worst affected. Random study would tell us that in most of the resettled areas villages have more single women headed households. Male member were lost in the war or are in detention. Some others have disappeared. We all know that more than 200 women came to the LLRC to give testimony. The women have young girl children or adult daughters to look after. They are afraid to leave them alone and go out in search of work/employment. There are soldiers all over and also men. Such vulnerable conditions are often breeding grounds for sex trade and harassment. Many bear witness to extreme vulnerability of women and are afraid to speak about the actual conditions due to fear and intimidation by the armed forces. Women have spoken to us about their fears; the need to provide security for the daughter who is left behind in the houses while they go out to find some income or to attend to some matters related to their resettlement.
Though during the past years I have not agreed to her politics I am quoting Thisaranee Gunasekera today. In one of her articles she has touched a raw point in relation to the present state of affairs in Sri Lanka. I quote “Philip Giraldi (former CIA agent and counter-terrorism expert turned anti-war political commentator) identifies three preconditions for the creation of a ‘National Security State’: a narrative which explains and justifies the idea of a ‘national security state’; a system of laws and regulations which accords the right of impunity to that state; and a high-tech system of surveillance which enables that state to monitor and control its citizens.
The narrative creates a new ‘national security consensus’; the legal changes enables the regime to repress those who are outside this ‘consensus’, with impunity; the spying permits the state to keep tabs on potential opponents of this ‘consensus’. All three preconditions are present in Sri Lanka, some in embryonic form.
The narrative justifying the de-democratisation of the Lankan state is almost complete. Two arguments are being used to justify the departure from democracy: one is the ‘need’ to safeguard independence, national sovereignty and territorial integrity, from Tiger separatists and their Lankan and international allies; the second is the ‘need’ to achieve rapid economic development.
This narrative enables the Rajapaksas to demonise its democratic opponents as either ‘anti-national’ or ‘anti-developmental’; both are deemed anti-patriotic and deserving of the harshest of treatment. Thus Gen. Fonseka is being punished for being ‘anti-national’ while those Colombo poor who oppose their eviction from their traditional localities will be castigated as ‘anti-developmental’. “
So the war continues, post-war.
The political leadership of Mahinada Rajapakse grew within the national chauvinist womb of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Even though some left leaders have justified their association with the SLFP identifying it as a progressive force in actual fact and in reality nothing got transformed in Sri Lanka during the SLFP eras socially. Under the UPFA even women’s rights we are in the worst era. All what we advocated for has been folded back with the appointment of two men and several other women to whom CEDAW is western and to talk about women’s rights in Sri Lanka has become an imperialist conspiracy. The main ideology that governs our rulers today is Sinhala supremacy. Rajapakse’s are the Sinhala rulers bestowed with that blessing to defeat all other claims to this island. Other people can live in Sri Lanka but paying homage to the king of Sri Lanka is a must and anybody who utters words against this authoritarianism is shunned as a traitor.
Can we expect a rational reasonable just solution to the ethnic problem from the Rajapakse regime? Today every perceivable subject of governance from housing to street cleaning, including garbage collection is in the hands of the Rajapakse family. I think over 65 state institutions come under the dictates of Gotabaya, Basil and Mahinda.
Does a spring of hope await the north? The government amended the Emergency Regulation but in practice continue to extend the Emergency with the warning of the possibility of the emerging Tiger. The large presence of the military has stifled civic and democratic rights of the people in the North. Activities related to resettling Sinhala people in traditional Tamil areas have begun in the north with the support of the government. A programme aired on France 24 TV highlighted the plight of Tamil fishermen who were uprooted from their traditional sea side habitats and housed inland, while their old houses were given to Sinhala fishermen and the army. As a result the Tamil fishermen have been effectively deprived of their livelihood.
Monuments and Memories
New monuments are rising in the Northern landscape. They are trying to erase the memories of the past. Budha statues are seen in every corner in the North. New Sinhala victory monuments adorns the A9 road. While family members of the North have no freedom even to offer prayers to the beloved in the month of May. Memories of Thileepan is removed and LTTE graves and monuments are bulldozed to the ground. Can we erase the memories in this manner? Can the removal of stones and bricks silence the voices of the people? Or assassinate the aspirations within them.
In his speech on 27th May the President has called us not to open up the wounds. In response I would like to share with you a quote from Truth Commission in East Timor.
In order to heal a wound treatment is necessary. To apply necessary medication we have to open up the wound. Otherwise it get infested.
There is an urgent call for collective acknowledgment of suffering. I am also well aware of the pain and agony of the Sinhala widow of the soldier who find herself in marginalized situations in the village. The child who is shunned away in the school because he has no father.
Thousands of Muslim IDPs remain uncertain about their future and right to land and property. The forcible eviction of the Muslims in 1990 was a tragic event in the struggle for identity in Sri Lanka.
Media and Civil Society
The relationship between media and civil society especially human rights advocates in South Asia is a very complicated one. At one level, it seems to be fairly strongly influenced by the relationship between civil society and state-especially in less democratic contexts wherein the state tends to dictate all relationships. In Sri Lanka the media is hostile to civil society in general but with few exceptions.
There also the question of competencies, both within the media, to comprehend the messages and arguments put forward by human rights advocates, and within civil society, to be able to communicate more effectively. Fundamentally, the dominant media’s appeal to popular opinion and ‘common sense’ politics may put it at odds with the more critical approaches advocated by human rights activists. The stereotyped images and even demonisation of human rights activists or those who challenge the legitimacy of dominant notions of state- as anti-national, traitors, etc. On the other hand, the tendency of many civil society actors to expect a privileged relationship with the media, especially on grounds that the media has a larger ‘social mission’ is also a matter requiring some attention. Human rights advocates need to review their own approach to the media to insist on professional standards rather than privileged access. Moreover, given that the ‘social mission’ of the media is open to diverse interpretations, being also an argument often harnessed by the state or dominant interests to advance their own views on wider issues of public interest, falling back on good media and journalistic practice appears more effective and strategic. This is also critical in terms of nurturing stronger and more independent media – hence instrumentalising the media and overlooking incompetency or relying on ‘cultivating’ individual journalists may not be an effective strategy in the long-run. At the same time, this is rendered very difficult given the lack of a consistent interest in and transparent engagement with civil society within most media institutions and their vulnerability to larger and more powerful political and business interests. A sustained and broader dialogue and engagement rather than just an issue based approach with media institutions as well as associations of media persons was underlined as important at a recent meeting held in Nepal and I wish to affirm this position.
The Report of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka relating to the final stages of the war in 2008/2009 was finally published on 25 April 2011. It is the first time that the country has received the attention at UN level that its record of conflict and violations merits. The Report reads as a major indictment of both parties to the conflict that ended with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in May 2009: “…the Panel found credible allegations, which if proven, indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law was committed [by both parties], some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace.”
Where do we go from here? Experiences of people who were affected by the war both directly and indirectly forms the basis of this report. To me this is an opportunity accorded to us as citizen’s of Sri Lanka to ask a simple question. Do we want to continue to be governed and live hearing all these things happening around us. We saw our sons and daughters disappearing in 1989 in the South, now families in the North have also reported to say the same things after 3 decades of the conflict. Husbands have disappeared, we found the body of Sivaram very close to the temple of democracy- the Parliament building on that fateful day. Ang Sun Sukii in her writing say `a country that fails to be the refuge to its own people can not be called a country’. How many have left Sri Lanka. We have the displaced and the refugees all over the country and outside. Surely some where we have failed. It is time we collectively begin to address the challenges before us – we have to move away from partisan political positions to develop high idols of politics and democracy, of dignity , justice and equality.